MAY 01, 2018 6:51 AM PDT

Research Roundup on How Opioids Impact the Brain

It's been called both a crisis and an epidemic and health professionals do not throw those terms around casually. The opioid addiction issue in the United States is a growing public health and safety concern. Research shows that it's even becoming statistically significant in life expectancy numbers.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), about 115 people die every day in the US from opioid overdoses. At the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, opioids and their effects on the brain were the subjects of a press conference. Along with the uptick in overdoses and addiction rates, there has been an increase in research. It's a good thing because according to the CDC, in 2016, deaths from drug overdoses hit an all-time high of 63, 600. Of those just over 42,000 of them were from opiates. The numbers represent a 21% increase in drug deaths and the largest single-year jump ever. The CDC estimates that more than 11 million Americans are struggling with addiction to opioids and that number is more than likely underreported since many who are addicted do not seek treatment.

The legal drugs that contain opiates, such as fentanyl, oxycodone, and morphine, along with illegal drugs like heroin or opium derivatives have a high potential for abuse because they act on receptors in the brain that are associated with reward and they produce a brief euphoria that increases the likelihood of dependence. The research that the SfN wanted to highlight included studies on the following opioid-related issues.

1) In a mouse model, a genetic variation was found that can protect against some of the behavioral issues that result from prenatal exposure to opioids. This study is critical because it's not always possible for expectant mothers to quit cold turkey and pregnancies are often unplanned. Stopping or reducing the impact on a fetus could save lives and prevent disabilities in children born to addicted mothers. Read more here (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5587126/)

2) Those who suffer from PTSD and who are also addicted to opioids have an increased response to fear and anxiety when confronted with a stressful situation. Investigators from UCLA looked at fear and anxiety behaviors in mice after administering morphine and found the reaction to stress was heightened in mice that were exposed to opiates. Read more here (http://www.brainfacts.org/diseases-and-disorders/addiction/2018/tackling-the-opioid-crisis-by-understanding-trauma-013018)

3) A study that looked at a process that "erases" memories of drug use found that cravings for opiates are reduced if memories can be eradicated. The team used doses of methadone to simulate a "high" from opioids and then, after reopening those memories, the mice in the study were prevented from accessing drugs, which allowed the brain to not consolidate those memories into long-term storage. Read more here (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-5081479/Scientists-erase-drug-memories-heroin-addicts.html)

Edward Bilsky, PhD, provost and professor of biomedical sciences at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences moderated the press conference and stated, "Given the current public health crisis as well as the medical importance of safe, effective pain medication, we need to learn as much as possible about the effects and interactions of opioids with the brain and nervous system. These new findings hold promise for advancing treatment options for substance-use disorders and also informing clinical uses of these drugs as analgesics in the treatment of acute and chronic pain." Take a look at the video from the Society for Neuroscience to learn more about these and other research studies on the brain and opioids.

Sources: Society for NeuroscienceNIDA  CDC

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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